But what about wildlife? you may be wondering by now. Where is this wonderful unique flora and fauna, biodiversity, endemic species, the famous lemurs?
Well, we saw as much as you can expect to see on a trip of this scope, if you read the trip description carefully. We visited three national parks, Ranomafana, Andringitra and Isalo. Only in Andringitra we stayed sort of inside the park, but we did not sleep in tents, which I don't regret. There were ringtails all over the camp, half-tame. In Ranomafana we stayed in a lodge close enough to the park to have a sense of being in a rainforest, and it was the only night when we saw the magnificent Southern sky. In Isalo we stayed in a fancy-ish hotel in a village far away from the park and only went into the park for a couple of hours. In total we have not been in the nature for more than perhaps twenty hours out of ten days. But they were mostly good hours, and the walks made me happy.
The road from Antsirabe to Ranomafana National Park was winding up and down mountains (I was glad I sat in the front seat that day), and by the afternoon the views began to be magnificent. The road itself got worse, but our driver Guy was imaginative, carefully avoiding potholes. All in all, we covered 240 km that day. As we entered the park and started the descent into a gorge, all of a sudden the familiar green walls of the rainforest appeared on both sides, a river along the road developing into cascades. It was as if we had gone through a portal into an alternative world.
That night, we soaked ourselves in insect repellent, and it was the first time ever I slept in a mosquito tent.
Outside, the rainforest was full of those wonderful rainforest noises I remembered from Brazil: crickets, frogs, birds. The smells, the touch of humid fog. We were promised a full-day walk with a picnic lunch the next day. I was full of anticipation since we had finally come to where I had longed to be. The previous two long and strenuous days were merely travel days, and from now on it would be nature all the way.
I had been worrying that I wouldn't be fit enough for the walk, but I was, and I was glad I had done all those endless step-ups at the gym, because we climbed up and down, bumping into other groups looking for lemurs. Nono stopped every now and then to tell us something, but perhaps mostly to let us catch breath. There was also a young boy who was an “animal spotter”, a scout sent in advance. Presumably, the guides had mobile phones to communicate, because all groups conflated in the same spots. I was still naïve and thought we were in genuine wilderness, even though it was a park, but it eventually became clear that everywhere the park rangers and guides fed lemurs at certain locations for tourists' benefit. But, who cares, we did see the locally famous Golden bamboo lemur, two black-and-white Milne-Edwards sifakas high in a tree, two awahi who are nocturnal and therefore obediently slept, and several Greater Bamboo lemurs who came down to the ground so I could almost touch them.
I could have stayed there forever, but we were rushed further, walking up and down for a while without seeing anything else. Then we were led back to the entrance, and the picnic lunch was a ham sandwich we ate standing by the van. We were then taken to another park where we were promised an abundance of birds, and right by the entrance we saw a group of Red-Bellied lemurs.
The rest of the walk was an anticlimax, and our birdwatcher Lynn was particularly disappointed because we didn't see one single bird! We saw some insects and a tiny frog, but there was nothing of Attenborough-photoshopped diversity of hundreds of species per square meter. The walk was almost flat. I did feel tired a bit – after all, we had been out for six hours – and proud of myself. Mami had mentioned hot springs, which sounded enticing, but it turned out to be a regular swimming pool full of local kids, so I skipped it.
The next day we drove to Andringitra National Park, on a road that I could not in my worst dreams imagine was possible to drive on, and I have seen enough of poor roads.
It took us two hours to drive perhaps thirty kilometres. I wasn't scared, but I wondered whether we would get there at all. The scenery was fabulous: high granite mountains raising all around us.
When we arrived in Camp Catta, the first thing we saw was a group of ringtailed lemurs, which cheered us all up.
We agreed in the evening that we would go on a medium-difficult walk the next day, 5-6 hours with picnic lunch, which I was looking forward to, although with some anxiety. I don't know whether it was a miscommunication or whether Mami had decided that some of us were not fit for medium-difficult, but the walk was a total disappointment. The local guide didn't speak much English, so he didn't tell us anything of interest. We saw more ringtails basking in the sun, Attenborough-wise; the dry forest was beautiful; and after half an hour we came to a natural pool. We had been told to bring swimsuits, but I was the only one to jump in, much to the amusement of local children who tried – not aggressively – to sell us beadwork. When I was changing back into my clothes, the kids came closer, and I had to ask the guide to tell them to go away, which they dutifully did.
After that, the walk was dull, eventually leading to a half-finished hotel where we had our sandwiches and were entertained by a young woman playing drums and singing. It was one o'clock when we got back to the camp, and Anton was really angry because he had aimed at climbing the rock, which apparently was part of the medium-difficult walk. He and Mark and Cathy decided to do it on their own, which, remarkably, was allowed, and I asked Mami whether there was another walk. There was one (extra charge to the guide), to a waterfall, 5 km one way, on the horrible road we had come, in the heat of the day. It turned out, I hadn't missed much by not going on that walk, because we saw the so called waterfall next day and it was dried up.
This left me the option of climbing the rock, but I knew I couldn't keep pace with the young people. Mami said it was safe for me to go, and I started with Anton and the rest, but after two hundred metres I took it very, very slowly, stopping and sitting down every fifty steps. The view was stunning, and the light was changing all the time. It was cloudy and not too hot. There were fantastic flowers and plants on the way, but I hadn't brought my phone/camera because Anton was our designated photographer, and I hadn't thought about it. But I have vivid memories of this climb, and looking back, it was one of the few highlights of the whole trip. Anton said afterwards that he was impressed by how high I had climbed, and I would have climbed higher still and possibly even caught up with them drinking beer by the rock face. What happened next was my own fault.
I was taking a pause, sitting on a rock and enjoying the view, when a young man, almost a boy, came hurrying up the path. With my traumatic memories of Armenia forty years ago, I was sure he would either rape or rob me, and the climb immediately lost its attraction. He walked past me with an indifferent “Bonjour”, but I knew I had to get down as soon as possible. Anton and the rest were nowhere in sight. The boy went up a bit and stopped, then followed me down which made my blood freeze. I didn't believe he would kill me so close to the camp, but the other options were bad enough. Thinking back, it was my sick imagination. Maybe Mami had sent him to check on me, or he went up on his own, to offer help in case I needed it. I am sure he was the nicest young man. But the situation brought back the traumatic memories, and I didn't enjoy it any more. Luckily, my memory is selective, and I will remember the joy and not the terror. I am just irritated at myself, that such a trifle made me stop halfway.
The final nature experience was in Isalo (pronounced EE-sha-loo), which took us another day to travel to. I had reconciled with the idea of Madagascar being a huge country with poor roads and inevitable long journeys from place to place. In the morning we climbed a mountain, enjoying fantastic views, but I couldn't help thinking that I had seen incredible mountainscapes in Australia and Arizona, and wasn't I really spoiled by having travelled so much.
Closer up, we saw stick insects and a couple of birds.
Then we went down the gorge to another natural pool, and this time everybody went swimming, and there were many other groups and too much noise. Anton was furious that we hadn't taken a more challenging circuit. Indeed, we didn't have to go back to our hotel for lunch but could have walked on. On the afternoon walk we saw two chameleons and a group of red-froned brown lemurs, apparently also half-tame. Dancing sifakas had been promised, but, as Mami said, “they had gone”. They should have glued them to the trees.
The highlight was a gorgeous waterfall, a tough climb where half of our group gave up, but I climbed on slowly, and it was worth it. I think it was my favourite walk.
After that, noisy crowds by the Fenetre, pushing to get the best snapshot of the sunset through the famous rock formation, felt pointless. The moment the sun was down they immediately dispersed. I was the last to leave and could have stayed longer. But the whole day was somewhat of a rush, and it was our last active day.
On the way to Toliara we were supposed to see spiny forest, but for some reason we missed it. We saw some baobabs. They weren't impressive.
Ironically, most of the nature we saw was in two small parks, Arboretum outside Toliara and Lemur Park 20 km outside Tana. Neither was part of our tour. The Arboretum guide was excellent, and we finally had a chance to touch, smell, look carefully, stay as much as we wished. We saw more birds, insects, lizards than during our whole trip. They had 900 species there. (Homerton College gardens have 800). The most interesting was an octopus plant, which is not a cactus. Lemurs somehow manage to jump on them.
Common brown lemur
Crowned sifaka Coquerel's Sifaka
The park was done with tact and taste; the lemurs were fed and taken care of, but could move around as they wished, and animals don't go away from their feeding spots.
This sums up our wildlife experience in Madagascar. Maybe I had chosen a wrong trip after all. Maybe we should have gone to just one place and stayed there and seen what there was to see. But this is what we have seen, and I will cherish it.
This is my favourite, White and black ruffed lemur. I like this individual in particular; I feel he is my soulmate.
To be concluded.